We hear the term preferred vendor all the time. But what makes a pro "preferred"? I'll share my take on it, plus some tips on hiring your event vendor team.
One thing that many couples and hosts don't know before diving into event planning is: they'll likely invest dozens of hours of their time to ensure they're hiring the right vendor team. Becoming an educated consumer in an industry were most go in with limited knowledge is incredibly time consuming.
Between researching, reviewing packages and portfolios, sending emails, requesting quotes, and making phone calls - finding the perfect fit in at least 6 different vendor categories is a huge project. Most will search Google, The Knot, Wedding Wire, Instagram. They'll solicit advice from family and friends, and maybe even crowd source referrals from Facebook groups (an increasingly popular trend). All good methods for getting the initial search going, but it's a time consuming process that can often lead to overwhelm.
If you're overwhelmed by the idea of shopping around, the best first step to building a reputable and cohesive team is to start by consulting with a planner that you connect with. Why? When you find a planner that fits your personality and style, chances are the vendor team they help you assemble will share the same values. Plus, planners have unique insight into what it's actually like to work with that professional and methods of vetting them. We work closely with a huge range of creative professionals - from photographers, to bands, to caterers. We have a unique perspective in the industry, as well as the experience to weigh strengths and weaknesses and justify why a vendor may or may not be a great fit for you.
Every planner is different. Some that prefer to work with a relatively small circle, some more broad. I enjoy working with a larger network and am comfortable referring vendors that I haven't worked with before. I have a thorough vetting process and can also rely on referrals from other reputable planners who have first-hand experience. I know what to look for and what to ask. After 10 years of working with 100s of vendors, I can see red flags from a mile away. I usually have a swift instinct for whether a vendor is or is not a good fit for a project, way before we even dive into details. When we do dive into details, I ask them to walk me through their client experience from initial inquiry to post-event.
So, what makes a vendor worthy of a referral? It's about so much more than just fitting into the budget and having the date available. Every event pro is going to differ in terms of what makes other pros "preferred" in their eyes. For me, it's not simply a list of people who I enjoy working with, and it's definitely not a list of people who give me kick-backs or dole out referral discounts. It's a network of trusted professionals that I can call on to deliver the kind of unique experience that my client is wanting. For me, there's no such thing as "getting on my preferred vendor list". It's simply about building a working relationship and sense of trust, so that we can understand what kind of clientele we serve and what projects are the right fits for us to collaborate on.
So, I thought I'd share insight into how I match my clients with the perfect vendors for them, and what qualifies a vendor as "preferred" in my eyes:
In order to gain a referral, a vendor has to:
Have a modern, professional online presence
In 2020, there's no reason to not have an online presence. And to take it one step further, a modern, professional presence. For me, I have to be able to send my clients over to sites that are beautifully designed, updated, easy to navigate and full of great info. Your website is the first impressions, and first impressions matter oh so much. It's so critical that you're putting your best foot forward with it.
Be a great communicator
The pre-wedding experience is so important to me. If a vendor is the type to not respond to client's emails for weeks on end, I simply cannot refer them. I draw a pretty hard line on that. Communication is a huge part of the customer experience and how we build trust in the process. As a planner, I [unfortunately] hear SO many stories about vendors that go radio silent after the contract and deposit are in - only to reappear one month or less before the event.
Now, I understand that many vendors don't have much to engage with the client on between the time the contract is signed and a month or two prior to the wedding. But, based on what I so often hear, response time is a frequent pain point. "I wrote to my venue [or sub in any other vendor] two weeks ago and haven't heard back, should I be worried?" is something I hear quite often. The short answer is, no, there likely isn't a reason to be worried yet. Should you be annoyed? Yeah, I would be.
I know this part is hard - most vendors are extra small businesses that are balancing email, sales, marketing, social media, pre, post, and production time, not to mention time for family and friends. But you have to figure out a way to impress your clients with your communication style. There has to be a way of maintaining a prompt response time with clients (or at least my clients, hah) to ensure that they feel heard and instill confidence.
Be a team player
Perhaps the biggest one? I can't refer anyone that has a "This is just the way I do it" or "I'm the one running this show" approach. It completely goes against my values and the way I choose to work. I don't care how beautiful your photos are or how many followers you have on Instagram. If we're working together on an event, we all need to check our egos, adapt to the needs of the client, and make. it. happen. Whatever it is. Every vendor on board needs to have that same level of commitment to succeed as ONE wedding team. Not as separate vendors with our own agendas. The events where this mentality is adopted across all professionals are the ones that run the smoothest! And we have the most fun.
The rest... is subject to the client's budget, personality, and aesthetic/style.
In order to match a client with the right vendors, we evaluate three things:
It really needs to drive the entire conversation. There's no sense in talking about style and aesthetics if we don't first establish the max you're willing to spend to find the right vendor. Ranges help! For example, ideal budget may be $4,000 - $5,000 but it's helpful to know that you may go up to $6,000 for the right fit. If you do not want to spend a dollar over $5,000, that's totally OK but also important to know. Think about it like a Say Yes to the Dress episode. I'm Randy. I'm not going to pull the Pnina dress if the budget doesn't allow for it. Budget immediately rules out many, many choices, regardless of the next two areas.
Tip on budget: If you're shopping around on your own, establish an initial range that you'd be comfortable with or a max budget that you're trying to stick to. Share that info. with each vendor you're speaking with. Yes, be transparent about your expectations for costs from the start! I promise you, your expectations are likely going to be lower than the cost of their services. And that's OK! There's nothing to hide and there's nothing to be embarrassed about - we understand that budget conversations are tough.
When you disclose where you're at with budget, it allows the vendor to be able to have an informative and educational conversation with you about what they can provide within that budget, or refer you to someone else who can provide what you need. When I'm speaking to a potential client, I often feel that they're nervous to disclose the budget that they have in mind for my services. It makes the conversation all the more challenging. But, being up front about your budget expectations can only help in every scenario of event planning.
Style & Aesthetic
Next up, the vendor has to fit with the aesthetic and overall style that the client is going for. This doesn't just apply to photographers. When you visit that vendor's website and view their work - what words come to mind? Comfortable, upscale, edgy, classic, traditional, feminine, modern, fun.... so many descriptors. Every vendor has their own unique brand aesthetic that speaks to what kind of creative they are. While many creatives are super versatile, the scope of their portfolio needs to be, for the most part, consistent with that style. A potential client wants to be able to picture their own wedding in the work that they're seeing. You can get a sense for this based on their work and asking them to share as much as possible of their current portfolio. Tip: ask them to share more images or talk through the details of a wedding that might be most similar to your style + location! Ask them to self-describe their style and the style of the clients that they tend to attract.
Personality & Approach
This is like the secret sauce for me. Like I mentioned, I'm a big experience person and connection is huge for me. It's no secret, and we've all heard it before - people like to do business with people they know, like and trust. So, for that reason I simply cannot refer a vendor just because they're within budget and fit a certain aesthetic. Personality and approach has to match, too. It has to do with everything from their communication style, sense of humor, how they talk about their process and their business approach, and just a general feeling you get when you connect with that person. When on a phone call with a potential vendor, get invested in getting to know them as a person. It's a two-way conversation. They want to get to know you on a personal level, and they're actively looking for areas where you might have some common ground. Definitely prepare the logistical questions, but save them for the end. When you start off the conversation, just simply get to know each other.
There are so many other micro elements to the process - but these are the basics!
Most couples in New England are investing somewhere in the $40K - $80K range on their wedding day. An amazing, once-in-a-lifetime kind of day, but a single day nonetheless.
That is never lost on me.
It's a huge investment, and I want all of my clients to feel they've invested in the best possible team for their wedding experience.
My advice to those who are currently searching for vendors: be thorough and consider all aspects of hiring. It should be a great fit on several dimensions and the overall outcome of your wedding experience weighs heavily on who you choose to hire (no pressure!). Don't rush into it, don't hire someone just because they're the cheapest or they came recommended by your venue or a Facebook group. Always go with who you feel a connection with and will bring the most value. Ask tons of questions, be an educated consumer and your own advocate.
My advice to other vendors who are looking to get referred: think about your values and your ideal client and how they align with that of other businesses. Take a hard look at your own processes and customer experience. Maybe your website could use some love, communication processes could be improved, or your client experience could be enhanced in other ways. And maybe you and another pro just don't have the same ideal client, and that's OK. It might not always be a great fit based on budget, aesthetic, or approach. Try to seek out other pros who are serving the same ideal client as yours.
What questions do you have about the vendor hiring process? Let me know!